July 3, 1997
Hugh McGuire, the author of this essay, is a research
consultant in West Hartford who works with small and start-up businesses.
In his Career Directions Workshop -- which he successfully demonstrated
to the Connecticut Labor Department -- he organizes unemployed people into
small teams with a common focus and leads them through the process of analyzing
the business market to find unserved or under-served needs for which they
can position themselves.
Teamwork for Educational and Economic Progress
How a country educates its children says as much about its perception of
the world and the future as any economic or political policy. In the United
States, we are facing a major crisis in education. The 1993 National Adult
Literacy Survey revealed that approximately 50 percent of individuals over
the age of 16 occupied the two lowest levels of literacy, comprehension,
and quantitative proficiencies. Even more disturbing, most of these people
did not recognize their own functional illiteracy. It is not surprising
that those falling in the two lowest categories also occupied the lowest
socioeconomic categories. Today, as in the past, socioeconomic status is
the primary predictor of educational achievement.
Education in the United States has always been oriented toward the middle-class
value system. We tend to locate the responsibility and motivation for obtaining
an education in the individual. We aim education toward the individuals
in a classroom, test them as individuals, and hold them accountable as individuals.
Such an emphasis is appropriate for middle- and upper-class people who come
from families with cultural values and opportunities that motivate students
to want to learn. For lower-class and working-class kids, the schools are
their primary source of education. We may decry Europe's rigid class structure,
but the European countries have been much more enlightened about orienting
school programs toward the values and needs of the students they are educating.
Because we refuse to recognize that the class structure of the U.S. is just
as rigid, we are providing no means of creating meaningful lives within
a given class position.
The fact of the matter is that working-class and lower-class people are
not as effective in competing as individuals as their middle- and upper-class
counterparts are. Why couldn't schools organize students into teams of three
to five and grade the teams rather than the individuals? I used this approach
once in teaching an urban and regional economics class. I offered the students
the option of organizing into teams of three and collaborating to write
a term paper. I told them that I expected to see a paper that looked like
it had been written by three people and I would give all three the grade
that the paper deserved. About half the class took me up on the offer. The
papers submitted by the teams were unquestionably superior to the papers
submitted by individuals in terms of the complexity of the question addressed,
the sophistication of their methodology, the lengths to which they went
to obtain data and information, and the quality of the writing.
The team approach can also be used to prepare students for changes they
will face in the global economy and the social structure. We do very little
to teach entrepreneurialism in the middle schools and the high schools in
the U. S. We allow students to seek low-paying part-time jobs instead of
teaching them how to identify economic opportunities and encouraging them
to start businesses of their own. It is possible to create model business
enterprises that are run and managed by high school students.
When kids in high school are taught how to start and run small businesses,
combining traditional skills training with an entrepreneurial perspective,
they begin to see a vast range of possibilities. It wouldn't cost very much
to set up, for example, a store where the kids could solicit business and,
under the supervision of a teacher, apply the skills they were learning
in shop class. They could run and manage the store. Over the four years
they were in high school, they could cover every aspect of operating a business
from advertising, repairing equipment, and dealing with customers to keeping
the books and planning for growth.
By creating such a business, students would gain confidence that they could
accomplish something by themselves. If they were also encouraged to work
as teams, they could learn the effectiveness of forming partnerships and
cooperative enterprises. Such enterprises could build neighborhood enthusiasm
and encouragement. If they began by advertising among all the parents in
the school system, I bet they would get an enthusiastic response. They could
also get support from the local chamber of commerce, the local economic
development agency, and other municipal and state and community resources.
And eventually such a approach could be expanded to adult schools as well.
Analyzing market opportunities does not require high levels of education.
It requires the ability to ask "what" in a systematic and orderly
way. A retail business can be initiated from a blanket on a street corner;
a manufacturing business can begin on one's living room floor. All the organizations
that purportedly assist people in initiating business enterprises focus
on the question "how." Most people, especially working-class and
lower-income people, don't know where to begin. They don't know "what"
kind of business to initiate, and they have no resources to use to find
If kids are taught that they can analyze a situation to identify needs they
can fill, and if they are taught how to cooperate with each other in pursuing
goals, then they will seek out opportunities and have both the confidence
and the education to take the initiative. We decry youth gangs, but the
fact of the matter is that many of them are creating businesses, illicit
businesses but businesses nonetheless. Why can't we use the natural inclinations
of working-class and lower-class kids to support each other by combining
and leveraging their resources in positive ways? By refusing to accept responsibility
for providing our children with the skills they need for the future, we
are abandoning the working and lower classes. That is the saddest indictment
that can be made of any country.
--Copyright Hugh McGuire
(Hugh Mcguire can be reached